(Disclaimer: BoardGameGumbo was provided with a retail copy of Old West Empresario for the purposes of this review. We have not been compensated in any other way).
In 2017 Tasty Minstrel Games released a board game called Pioneer Days. Through the mechanisms of dice drafting and resource management players were tasked with leading their personal caravans of old west settlers through the arduous trip to the American frontier. I found the game to be extremely enjoyable and particularly liked how TMG handled the dice drafting mechanic. When drafted each die could be used in a number of different ways, but the die that was not drafted would advance one of several disaster tracks. So if a red die was left over (there was 1 more die available than needed) then the red disaster would advance.
Drafting, whether it be through cards or dice, is quickly becoming one of my favorite mechanics. Games like 7 Wonders, Paper Tales, and La Granja: No Siesta have all become favorites of mine and make frequent appearances at our weekly board game nights. I particularly enjoyed the way Pioneer Days handled dice drafting because it not only gave players multiple choices on how to use the die they drafted, but also made the die not drafted extremely important. So when TMG announced a successor to Pioneer Days and that the Krewe would be getting a copy in advance of its release, I was really excited!
The West is now full of pioneers who are looking for a place to call home. You have been granted land and hope to build up your fledgling city to attract the most citizens. Empresario still uses dice drafting, with each die being usable in multiple ways, but instead of resource management it uses tile laying and tableau building. Ultimately I found Old West Empresario less impressive than Pioneer Days, but I generally prefer the mechanic of resource management to tile laying, so that isn’t particularly surprising. Despite that disclaimer it is still an excellent game, and one worth looking into if you are a fan of tile laying games.
So, let’s take some time to look at how the game plays and then I’ll give you my thoughts on the game itself.
How Does it Play?
The mechanics of Old West Empresario are actually extremely simple, with much of the complexity coming from the tiles themselves. You will start by setting out 6 signposts on the table that represent the 6 faces of the d6 dice that are rolled each round. For each sign there will be 2 buildings drawn randomly from the reserve and placed underneath them. The first player will roll all of the dice (2 for each player, plus 1) and then select one of those dice to keep for themselves. The dice you keep can be used in one of three ways.
1. Take a building from underneath the signpost associated with the value of the die. These buildings are immediately added to your city on their grey (unbuilt) side. Buildings must be added so that they connect to a building already in your city in one of the four cardinal directions (so not diagonally). Any unbuilt buildings in your city do not count in any way (either for scoring, or meeting objectives, etc) until they are built.
2. Discard a building from the signpost associated with the value of the die and take 3 gold from the supply. This is mostly a means of keeping specific buildings out of the hands of your opponents, but honestly it was far and away the least used action in every game I’ve played.
3. Activate all of the buildings in your city with the value of the die you drafted. Most of the buildings you acquire through the course of the game activate on a specific die value and give some benefit (whether it’s gold, victory points, the ability to construct buildings, etc). You can activate your buildings in any order you choose, however, so if activating one building allows you to construct another which shares the same die value, you can then activate the second building with the same die.
Once all players have drafted 2 dice and carried out their chosen actions, the last die is used by all players (in turn order). This final die can only be used to activate a single building in each player’s tableau.
Really, that’s all you need to know to play Old West Empresario. Once all players have taken their two actions plus the shared third action, the first player token shifts clockwise to the next player. Any buildings still on the table stay, but signposts are refilled up to 2 buildings each. Play continues in this fashion until one of three things happen; someone has constructed 15 buildings in their city, the supply of victory point tokens runs out, or there are no more tiles in the supply. You will finish the round in which any of these events take place and then proceed to final scoring.
As I’ve already said, much of the complexity of the game comes from the tiles themselves. So let’s take a look at some examples of tiles available in the game for a better understanding of what’s going on.
Most tiles score points at the end of the game by being next to a specific type of building. The tile farthest to the left is a Mine, and it scores points in two different ways; first by being next to an Inn (pink building), and secondly by being next to a Distillery (red building). If your Mine is next to an Inn at the end of the game, the Mine will be worth 2 points. It doesn’t matter if your Mine is next to 1 or 3 Inns, it will still only score 2 points. Each Distillery that a Mine is next to will make the Mine worth 1 extra point. So in the example of a Mine having one Inn and one Distillery adjacent to it, it would be worth 3 points. If 2 Inns and 1 Distillery were next to the Mine, it would still only be worth 3 points.
The second building, a Church (purple building) scores 1 victory point for each space adjacent to it where there is no building. It will also score a victory point for each Carpenter (brown building) next to it. The third tile, a Carpenter building, will score 1 victory point for each Church next to it, as well as score 4 victory points if it is completely surrounded (both cardinally and diagonally).
Lastly we have the Office of Native Affairs. This is a civil building, and should be noted that it has no activatable effect (seeing as there is no die value in its lower section). This building will score you 1 victory point per green tile in your city at the end of the game; of course the green buildings are Native Settlements.
In total there are nine different types of tiles in Old West Empresario, which is more than enough variation to keep the game interesting. All Mines will generate 2 coins when activated, but they differ in which value die activates them and also by the Stock icons on them (in the above example there is a Railroad icon on the Mine tile; I will explain how those work shortly). There are even some tiles, like the Undertaker, that score you negative victory points for each tile next to it.
Aside from tile placement, there are a few other ways to score points in Old West Empresario. First there are the Stock Icons which I just mentioned. There are three in total; Railways, Cotton and Oil, and each one scores differently. Railways score one victory point for each tile with a Railway icon on it in a contiguous group, but only your largest group will score. Cotton is almost the opposite; it will score one point for each group of Cotton tiles you have, no matter how large they are, so separating your cotton tiles is the most efficient way of scoring them. Lastly there are Oil tiles, which score one victory point per tile, but only if you have the most Oil icons in your city. Otherwise you only get one victory point per two Oil icons.
There are also Wanted cards available to all players as public objectives. There will be one silver and one gold Wanted card per objective. These will be drawn at the beginning of the game and placed so that all players can see them. Once a player meets an objective they take the highest ranking card still available; gold for the first person to complete the objective and silver for the second.
End game scoring takes into account a lot of different factors; you will score each type of building, Wanted cards, each of the three Stock icons, as well as victory point tokens accumulated during the game, and more. It can look a bit daunting at first, but there is a very handy scoring sheet that makes it all rather easy. Total up all your points and the person with the most has built the most prosperous city in the west!
What Do I Think?
As I’ve already stated, I prefer Pioneer Days to Old West Empresario. They are both excellent games, but the mechanics of Pioneer Days are more appealing to me than Old West Empresario. I am also disappointed that TMG chose to change the mechanic from Pioneer Days that I enjoyed the most, which is how the final die is used during the game. In Pioneer Days the final die has significant impact on the game; not only do you want to avoid certain disasters depending on your strategy, but causing disasters that more negatively impact your opponents is key to winning. There just isn’t that sort of player interaction in Old West Empresario, and I think the game suffers for it.
Of course there are many people who prefer games where you cannot be affected by your opponents, and for them this change will be good news. It comes down to how you enjoy your Euros, and for me I like to be able to affect my opponents to try and throw off their strategy, even if just a little. It’s the Orleans versus Altiplano argument all over again!!
Tasty Minstrel Games always seems to do really well with theme, at least in my eyes. Orleans, Gentes, Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done; not only are they amazing mechanically but they really fit the theme that TMG is going for with each game. Old West Empresario is no different, in that the theme is evident throughout the entire game. Everything you do makes sense in the prism of building up a city and trying to attract the most citizens. Distilleries score points for being next to Saloons, and vice versa, because it makes getting the liquor there easier! Mines score extra points when next to Inns and Distilleries because those miners need somewhere to drink and sleep after a hard day of work.
I really enjoy a lot of the elements that TMG has put into this game to make it feel like more than just laying tiles down in the correct pattern. So much of my dislike of tile laying games is that they tend to be just that, a slightly more interactive version of Tetris. Old West Empresario is much more than just a Tetris-wannabe.
Effectively placing your tiles is the key to success in Old West Empresario. While you can score points during the game by activating tiles with dice, those end game points are too numerous to ignore. This is where the real strategy of the game comes in, in being judicious with your placement of tiles in order to maximize their point value while also keeping in mind the tiles that are yet to come, and trying to do what you can to slow your opponents’ strategies.
The learning curve for Old West Empresario is about what you’d expect from a game of its weight; a single game will have you seeing most, if not all, of the tiles the game has to offer. This makes subsequent plays more about strategy than any sort of player knowledge. The pace of the game is also excellent, with each game I’ve played taking not much longer than 45 minutes. BJ calls these types of games ‘one hour wonders,’ and I’m increasingly finding myself enjoying that length of play.
Old West Empresario does a lot to alleviate the concerns I have with the primary mechanic of the game, but it still feels a little too much like a solo game for me. I prefer games with far more player interaction in them, but of course there are people who prefer the exact opposite. If you land on the less side of the fence on that subject and you enjoy tile laying games, I really can’t think of a better one.
Production is another area where TMG tends to shine. Their ‘Deluxified’ versions of their games are always popular, but even the component quality on their regular games is outstanding. I even prefer the retail version of one of their games (Flow of History) to the deluxe version because of the size of the box. (Although I do wish they’d sell those fancy upgraded player markers separately)
All of the cardboard pieces in Old West Empresario are incredibly sturdy, the dice are nice and the card stock is above average. There were some complaints with the art of Pioneer Days being too cartoony, and the artstyle is the same in Old West Empresario. Personally I don’t mind the art and think it meshes well with the light style of play that the game offers. The victory points being people is very clever and thematic, and I really appreciate its’ inclusion in the game.
The one major complaint I do have with the production of the game is about the greyed-out side of the building tiles. While thematically it makes sense for the tiles to look this way and it easily allows you to see which tiles in your city are inactive, it causes some confusion during the course of play. The icons on the tiles that inform you about which tiles score points are all color coded, so for them to be greyed-out leads to a situation where players are constantly flipping tiles to remember how each tile scores.
I find this to be the only misstep in an otherwise beautifully made game, but I consider it to be a fairly major issue. I can’t say if the decision was one based on costs, thematics, or some other justification but I ultimately think it was the wrong choice to make. Having just the scoring sections of each tile remain in color would solve the entire issue while retaining the thematic impact of the tile being greyed out to denote it being unbuilt.
Old West Empresario debuts at Gencon in under a week, so if you’re going to be there and have a desire for some tile laying goodness, I highly recommend it. Tasty Minstrel Games will be at Booth 1335 with new releases Old West Empresario and Dilluvia Project as well as one of my favorite games in their lineup, Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done. Also they will be doing demos of Emperor’s Choice, the next game from Yokohama designer Hisashi Hiyashi. Emperor’s Choice will be coming to Kickstarter later this year, so don’t pass up the chance to try it now!
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!